The Process Behind 'Stiff Upper Lip': Part 1

Normally, my paintings take a long time to plan, they require revisions when elements don't quite work as well as they should, and I make mistakes that make extensive repainting a necessity. But not so with this painting; everything went worryingly smoothly. Okay, there were odd little problems, but nothing that required weeks of extra work. Hooray!

Let's go back to the beginning and look at the planning process of 'Stiff Upper Lip'. The overall idea behind the painting is that the character is being lowered into reality and crushed under the intense pressure, and yet manages to keep a lovely smile throughout. I took this central idea and through the process of free-association came up with lists of words and pieces of text that would steer the direction of the painting. These shenanigans led to the development of the bathysphere as a brass germinating seed, with roots that resemble the central nervous systems, complete with firing neurons. I sometimes wonder whether I need to take the time to work through all of the free-association phase but it definitely leads me down some interesting paths, so I'm going to stick with it.

After this initial stage I knew that I would need some photos of blocks of flats as reference, and I knew the perfect place to take them: on St. James Street in the centre of Doncaster where there are some newly refurbished (on the outside at least) flats. I took many photos, getting some strange and suspicious looks from the residents, and then started messing about with ideas in Photoshop.

This was my initial idea, with a translucent floating bathysphere, and the flats are the size they are in real life. I felt the extra buildings confused things and made the image look cluttered. The bathysphere gave no indication as to how it was moving so it needed to be rethought. On to iteration 2:

The bathysphere is still translucent but the darkness has crept in, and now the cable from which it is suspended can be seen. The buildings are slightly taller than actual size. The tilt was neither here nor there and looks as though it may just be a mistake, so for my next pass I made it more extreme which had the benefit of adding dynamism.

The flats have been extended to make them a lot taller but it didn't feel as though the bathysphere was going down into the scene. Next.

Here, I tried something radically different and went for a calmer, more peaceful approach. The idea for the crushed bathysphere and the central nervous system as roots make their first appearance in this iteration. I pieced the crushed metal together from photos of sculptures by Ewerdt Hilgemann.

I quite liked the stillness but I missed the height of the flats in the previous version, and the bathysphere still looked as though it was being pulled up. Back to the drawing board.

This is where it came together. The flats are huge and looming. Dropping the bathysphere down into the lower half of the painting and allowing the roots to be cropped at the bottom gave more of an impression of it descending. When I reach the point in the planning stage where the image clicks, I often think why didn't I do this straight away. But it's by doing the other versions that I see what I don't want. When I see something good I go with it, keep that element and change the parts I don't like. Through this process of iteration I am able to find what I'm after.

Some further development led to this and I was pleased with the result. As a final check, I produced an abstract version to look at the composition.

And I was happy. I especially liked the negative space where the sky is. Now it was time to start drawing this on to my board. Easier said than done. I'll show you why next time.

For Part 2, Click Here.

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